A little over a year ago a massive NSA revelation rocked the United States, courtesy of a young system administrator named Edward Snowden. I remind you of this in plain English, because the matter of the government passively collecting every communication we digitally send seems to have exited the public consciousness almost entirely, in favor of flashier stories about Ebola and ISIS. I don’t mean to trivialize these issues, but the disappearance of PRISM and the NSA from the national conversation couldn’t have been better executed if it had been planned. Luckily Laura Poitras’s brand-new documentary, Citizenfour, is here to remind everyone just what Edward Snowden was trying to accomplish.
I’ll admit that I have never really been the most informed when it comes to the goings-on in our world. So I really appreciated how in depth Poitras goes into what went down with the Snowden leaks – it would be kind of hard to avoid all of that, because she was so integral to how the story broke. In early 2013, Snowden covertly contacted Poitras, viewing her as an ally in light of her filmography. Together with journalist Glenn Greenwald, the three plan for the best way to disseminate the very sensitive surveillance information Snowden has decided the public deserves to know about.
That decision is really the crux of the film. Snowden is the titular citizen, “Citizenfour” being the handle he used to contact Poitras. The director has an almost unprecedented level of access to the man just because of how everything shook out, and over the course of eight days she is able to produce – if not a comprehensive picture of the man – a glimpse of the almost-mythical figure before the legend was written. Snowden tells Greenwald and Poitras that it is up to them what the public learns, not him, but he is the one who took such drastic action. He says he wants to facilitate the story rather than become it, but he is also eager to come out as the source. Snowden is a complex man who we see here in his earliest moments of Promethean benevolence, handing out wisdom from his perch on a hotel bed.
But Poitras doesn’t strive to merely show us Snowden. She wants her viewers to have a full understanding of the context, hence a substantial prologue regarding the government’s surveillance tactics before Snowden is even glimpsed for the first time. Much of this could be considered unimportant exposition to those who are better informed, but it was integral to my fascination with the subject matter. Poitras also refuses to talk down to the audience, never holding back on technical jargon that I still don’t really understand.
What Poitras ends up with is hard to describe. It is technically a documentary, but it is more blatantly subjective than any other that I have seen. This can surely be attributed in part to the fact that Poitras herself is a character in the film, in the form of her written communications with Snowden. There is never any acknowledgement of an argument against Snowden’s actions, not even to debunk it. Poitras uses the situation’s natural narrative (and editor Mathilde Bonnefoy) to convey Snowden’s message: the ever-present threat of surveillance automatically stifles freedom, even if you aren’t looking to commit terrorism.
Think about it – most of us have made jokes about the fact that NSA is monitoring our texts or emails, but it isn’t a joke, really. And maybe that thought in the back of your mind subtly changes the way that you use the internet and technology. This, Snowden argues, is a tragedy. As a product of the internet age, Snowden sees it as a tool with the limitless potential to broaden our horizons. Nothing should take that away. I am inclined to agree, despite the fact that I could conceivably be put on some sort of list just for posting a blog with a favorable take on this film.
Because this is a favorable take. Citizenfour is a sharp, smart, and exciting documentary – despite the fact that a large chunk takes place in a hotel room – that not only informs but evokes an emotional response – an angry call to arms. About a year ago, after the news of the leak had been out for several months, I got into a debate with my mom and sister. They argued that what Snowden did was bad for the country. I would argue that it was bad for the government, but good for the people. Fortunately for me, I can just show them Citizenfour next time, because it makes that argument much more effectively than I ever could have.